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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Is Edna Ferber more than a high-brow literary hack?

I've always thought of Edna Ferber as a high-brow hack, but maybe I've underestimated. I remember reading Cimarron in, when, 8th grade English, which shows you the level of sophistication in the English curriculum in the schools I attended. A couple of her novels have been made into OK movies - but that's it, her posthumous reputation has never kept pace w/ her near-contemporaries, that is, she's never mentioned in the same company as Wharton or Cather - but she does bob to the surface once in a while - notably, in the recent collection 100 Years of the Best American Stories (Moore and Pitlar, eds.) - which I've started reading around in, and Ferbers's story A Gay Old Dog (a title that would sound totally weird today), the sole representative in this volume of stories pre-1920. So of course this is a very old-fashioned story in style and mores - but a really good example of fiction in and about its day and age: published circa 1917 and it's about a 50-something "man about town" (as they would have called him in New York, Ferber wryly notes) from Chicago, Jo (correct spelling) Hertz, who goes to all the right restaurants, to his favorite table, to his orchestra (parterre, is the term she sues) theater seats, dresses like a "dandy" - a guy we generally would care little about, and not the type of man often portrayed in fiction, as he's so decidedly unliterary, unintellectual, but Ferber's genius here is that she asks: Who is this man? And as she notes to tell his story in a few pages (which she proceeds to do) is impossible, as his story is more like a novel (whose isn't? - as so many great semi-autobiographical and naturalistic novelists have proven again and again). What works so well is that she doesn't need the scope of a novel to tell of Jo's sorrowful and ill-fated life: He pledges to his mother on her deathbed that he will take care of his 3 sisters (OK) and that he will not marry until all of them have married (stupid - and like the beginning of a Shakespeare tragedy perhaps). Over the course of his life, he comes to realize that he has wasted his entire life in service to his selfish and self-absorbed sisters - his chance to have a life of his own has come and gone, and now - the story ends as the U.S. is entering the World War (I) - he will never have a son of whom he is proud, a woman to love and cherish and share a life with - just the empty trappings of his wealth (he is not exactly a war profiteer but we see that he has made a fortune selling supplies to the military, while 19-year-old boys march off to war) - the story, though a bit melodramatic at the end when he confronts two of his sisters - ends with a true sense of pathos - a tragedy in a minor key.

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